SAN FRANCISCO — In light of intense pressure to slash federal spending in the United States, scientists welcome news that the White House is seeking to maintain level funding for NASA’s Earth Science Division over the next five years. They remain concerned, however, about the serious challenges NASA officials face in recovering from recent setbacks and deploying a constellation of spacecraft capable of monitoring the many variables that influence Earth’s changing climate.

The president’s 2013 budget plan submitted to Congress in February requests $1.78 billion for NASA Earth science programs, a slight increase from the division’s $1.76 billion 2012 budget. The White House plan also calls for funding to remain relatively constant from 2014 through 2017, which would provide “much desired stability,” said Michael Freilich, NASA Earth Science Division director.

Rising rocket costs, however, continue to eat up a growing portion of NASA’s Earth science budget. In 2013 alone, NASA officials had to carve $250 million out of the Earth science budget to pay for launch vehicles, Freilich said.

Recent rocket failures destroyed two NASA Earth science missions. NASA lost the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in February 2009 and the Glory climate monitoring spacecraft in March 2011 when Orbital Science Corp.’s Taurus XL rockets failed to reach orbit. Last year, the space agency revised its rocket purchasing strategy to reduce the amount of risk it is willing to accept on launches.

In February, NASA asked companies to submit bids on the cost of launching OCO-2, Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) and the first spacecraft in the Joint Polar Satellite System. In evaluating the proposals submitted, NASA will place a higher emphasis on vehicle reliability than on cost, Freilich said.

Due in part to the need to select a new launch vehicle for OCO-2, that mission will launch later than previously scheduled. NASA officials originally planned to fly OCO-2 on a Taurus XL rocket in February 2013. They now expect it to launch in July 2014 or later, Freilich said. Rising rocket costs also are likely to force NASA officials to delay the launch of some missions recommended by the Earth science decadal survey, a 2007 National Research Council report.

“We always wish to provide missions and science as rapidly as possible,” Freilich said. “But I would much rather delay a launch than launch on time and lose the mission as a result of launch failure.”

Space agency budget blueprints submitted to Congress in February include plans to launch the Landsat Data Continuity Mission in January 2013, the Global Precipitation Mission in June 2014, SMAP in January 2015 and ICESat-2 in November 2016.

The Global Precipitation Mission, a joint program involving NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, experienced setbacks last year due to a combination of factors, including delays in spacecraft and instrument development. In recent weeks, the Global Precipitation Mission team has made significant progress in completing the design of instruments and spacecraft subsystems, Freilich said.

He cited the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite as another recent success. That mission has performed “exceedingly well” since its October launch, Freilich said. In early March, NASA’s Earth Science Division turned NPP satellite operations over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after verifying the accuracy of spacecraft’s five on-board instruments.

In spite of the upbeat tone Freilich uses when discussing NASA’s Earth science program, scientists are clearly dismayed by the setbacks the program has encountered. In late 2010, NASA’s Earth science budget was slated to grow large enough to enable the space agency to fly 16 major missions between 2011 and 2021. “Then the roof fell in,” said Berrien Moore, dean of the University of Oklahoma’s College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences and co-author of the Earth science decadal survey.

Since 2010, NASA officials have had to grapple with the loss of the Glory mission, intense pressure to reduce federal spending, increased launch costs and rising space mission prices. “I’m not critical of NASA and NOAA leadership,” Moore said. “They are doing quite well under the circumstances. But we now find ourselves in a position that is extremely worrisome.”

Two of the four decadal survey’s highest-priority missions, Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) and Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO), were dropped last year from NASA’s five-year funding plan. NASA is making progress on the other highest priority decadal survey missions: SMAP and ICESat-2.

Rick Anthes, decadal survey co-author and former president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, questioned whether DESDynI and CLARREO would ever fly. “When a mission is scheduled more than 10 years out, it’s hard to get excited about it,” he said. “By that time the technology will be so different.”

Anthes and Moore also expressed concern about the rising costs of Earth science missions. When the SMAP mission was recommended in the decadal survey, for example, the study’s authors expected it to resemble the canceled U.S.-Canadian Hydros mission and to be completed for slightly more than $300 million, Moore said. Similarly, the decadal survey authors expected ICESat-2 to be only slightly more sophisticated than ICESat-1. They did not expect the mission to be equipped with the groundbreaking technology now planned for ICESat-2, Moore added.

“Those missions are well over the costs we estimated,” Anthes said.

He attributed that cost growth to a number of factors. “We may have been too optimistic in our cost estimates,” he said. “The programs were not managed to hold down costs. And the actual missions are more elaborate than we envisioned.”

The White House budget blueprint published in February includes plans to ask Congress to provide the Earth Science Division with $1.78 billion in 2014, $1.84 billion in 2015, $1.83 billion in 2016 and $1.77 billion in 2017.



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...